15 things to celebrate about Fresno’s Rogue Festival

Happy 15th birthday, Rogue Festival.

To celebrate your transition from young teeny-bopper to rapidly-approaching adult – but one who still has to wait six years until it’s legal to grab a beer at Goldstein’s Mortuary & Delicatessen, alas – we present a highly opinionated list of 15 things we appreciate about Fresno’s enduring fringe festival. The event kicks off Thursday, March 3, with a preview show at the Tower Theatre and continues through March 12 at nine venues around the Tower District.

1. It’s cheap. The Rogue is designed to be less expensive than other entertainment options. Aside from the $3 Rogue wristband (a one-time mandatory expense), tickets to individual shows range anywhere from $5 to $15. The average for a main-stage performance is $10, though at least one (The Germ) is free with a Rogue wristband.

2. It’s direct monetary support. All ticket sales go the performers. That’s no small thing for those of us who think artists should get paid. It’s no small thing for the artists either. Many returning performers make the Rogue an annual stop because of the paycheck. The festival paid out more than $55,800 in 2014.

3. It’s about tradition. After 15 years, the Rogue isn’t just a festival, it’s a culture. There’s founding father Marcel Nunis, his perpetually relaxed form and slyly smiling visage seemingly everywhere: sitting behind you in the audience, in line for a show, chatting with performers in a bar. In those beginning days, even before social media, Nunis somehow knew the buzz on what to see and what to avoid. (How does he do it, some sort of telepathic version of Facebook?) Then there’s Blake Jones, who has been involved with every single Rogue Festival since year one, either as a performer or as a volunteer. His show this year is titled “Art: Why Do We Bother?”

4. It’s a chance for artists to take creative risks. A good example this year: Fresno State’s Benjamin Boone, who for years has treated the Rogue to well-received concerts of the jazz quartet bearing his name, is heading in an entirely new direction this time around. Boone will be joined by accomplished local artists Kate McKnight, Debra Parola and Eva Scow in a multimedia theatrical production titled “Water.” It features live music accompaniment, dancers, an actor, the recorded narration of the late poet Philip Levine, and a 44-quart cauldron of water. The project builds on Boone’s original composition “Water(less),” commissioned by the Youth Orchestras of Fresno, but he’s branching off with some wild experimentation here. Sounds intriguing.

5. It’s a valentine to the Tower District. There are other times of the year when you can walk through the Tower and witness a bustling artistic feel. But Rogue is special. With crowds spilling out of various venues every hour or so, on its busiest days the festival streets are busy and the atmosphere lively. Even if you don’t feel like going to a show, grab a meal or a drink and watch the world walk by.

6. It’s the democratization of art. The Rogue is a nonjuried festival. Performer slots are booked first-come, first-served, no accounting for content or style. Audiences vote for what works (or doesn’t) with their wallets and word of mouth. By the end of night two, you’ll have a good idea of the year’s standout performances (last year’s “The Famous Haydell Sisters Comeback Tour” comes to mind). Audiences can (and should) leave reviews. We’ll be giving our thoughts in daily updates throughout the festival.

7. It’s exhilarating. Or it can be. Take, for example, The Famous Haydell Sisters. This mockumentary about a former hit country musical group, complete with a set list of blisteringly funny satirical songs, was a sleeper hit that became one of the Rogue’s buzzed-about shows. There’s nothing quite like being in the audience opening weekend and realizing you’re at a hit. The show’s creators Sadie Bowman and Donna Kay Yarborough are back this year with “SHEnatra!,” billed as a take on the Brat Pack in a gender-bending musical pastiche.

8. It’s full of top-notch performers. Rogue is a fringe festival, which by nature makes it a niche market, even in performing arts circles. While you won’t be seeing any Broadway stars or Tony Award winners, the festival has seen its share of fringe festival equivalents over the years. Canadian rapper/playwright Baba Brinkman was a Rogue favorite with his “Rap Canterbury Tales” and Barry Smith’s first solo show, “Jesus in Montana: Adventures in a Doomsday Cult,” was a hit at the Rogue and the New York International Fringe Festival, where it won outstanding solo show in 2005. This year, check out Gemma Wilcox, who has won 16 “Best of Fest” awards, including four at the Boulder International Fringe Festival alone. Wilcox will be premiering an all-new show.

9. It’s full of culture. Well, sometimes. Tim Mooney’s “Breakneck Hamlet” is a one-man presentation of the Bard’s famous tragedy condensed to under one hour. Think of it as CliffsNotes times two.

10. It’s bohemian. At least according to The Atlantic Magazine. Author James Fallows visited Fresno last year for the magazine’s American Futures series. He used the Rogue Festival as backdrop to talk about the role of arts communities “as a lever for broader civic recovery.”

11. It’s fun to see familiar faces. From stalwart locals such as Tony Imperatrice (who is bringing back his one-man solo organ-storytelling show “Play It Like Virgil”) and the stellar Megill and Co. and Fresno Dance Collective (NOCO) ensembles to such relative newcomers as Claire Patton, who is following up last year’s “A Girl’s Guide to War” with the theater/spoken-word show “Barnacle: A Salty Love Story,” you can seek out acts you’ve liked in the past.

12. It’s a chance to get political. If social commentary gets you excited, you can usually find an act to pique your interest. Howard Petrick, a loyal out-of-towner and Rogue veteran, delivers on this front. His new show, “V.R. Dunne,” is the story of a union organizer.

13. It can be naughty. While some Rogue shows are appropriate for children (there’s even a Kids Rogue event), others are for adults only. And in a region where community theater tends to reign, the festival offers theatergoers a rare chance to get a little racy. Two shows this year have titles we can’t even print in their entirety: “Awkward Conversations With Animals I’ve ------,” from Another Theater Company and acted by Joshua Taylor, a script that premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and the ubiquitously salty Jaguar Bennett’s “-------- is My Native Language,” a stand-up routine about marketing, philosophy and “how art is a lie that tells the truth.”

14. It gives you the chance to see bad stuff and not feel bad about it. Wasting a couple of hours of your time on a bad movie, play or band? Not fun. Wasting 50 minutes? Not so bad. Over 15 years – along with many gems – we’ve seen some cringeworthy performances, the kind that make you want to roll around in grass afterward to get the ickiness off your body. But if all you experience is superb art, then you wouldn’t really have a basis of comparison, right? Sometimes you can get inspired by creativity that goes awry. The Rogue gives you a chance to take risks as an audience member by not always making that sure bet.

15. It’s vital to Fresno. That’s why the City Council is giving the festival its own day. If all goes well, the official declaration of Rogue Festival Day is Thursday, March 3, to recognize “the contributions of independent artists to the cultural fabric of Fresno and the Central Valley.” (We’re qualifying this, because what happens if someone at the last minute approaches the council, “Footloose”-style, and tells it about the dirty dancing?) Getting a thumbs-up from the establishment might seem a little antithetical to the idea of a fringe festival, but, then again, it’s always nice to be appreciated.

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee

15th annual Rogue Festival

Event preview

  • Rogue Festival Teaser Show: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 3, Tower Theatre, 815 E. Olive Ave. www.roguefestival.ticketleap.com. $10
  • Rogue performances: Friday, March 4, through Saturday, March 12, at nine Tower District venues.
  • Tickets: A Rogue bracelet (one-time fee of $3, available at all venues) is required for admission to all performances, plus a ticket ranging from $5-$10. Tickets can be ordered online at www.roguefestival.ticketleap.com. Half the tickets for each show are held back for sale at the door (cash or credit card) starting 30 minutes before performance.
  • Schedule: Paper copies of the Rogue program are available at all venues until they run out. Go to www.roguefestival.com for an electronic version, plus news and updates.
  • Online at www.fresnobeehive.com: Look for roundups, reviews and updates throughout the festival.